Not All Labor Unions Are Equal

12/06/2013 05:40 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

In the late 1990s, the human resource rep at the paper mill where I used to work called me at home (I was the union president) and said she had something very serious to discuss. When I asked for a hint as to what the problem was, so I wouldn't be blindsided, she demurred. She said this was something she "wasn't comfortable" discussing over the phone. That alarmed me.

When I arrived, she told me that someone in the mill (presumably a materials handling driver) had stolen coupons out of several bags of Huggies disposable diapers. What made this an especially serious offense was that these Huggies were part of a new product line not scheduled to be introduced in the U.S. for another week. They had been produced at the Utah facility and shipped to our warehouse, awaiting launch of the national rollout.

The HR rep and I had a decent relationship. Although she viewed me as something of a radical (I'd once shut the mill down on a 57-day strike), she saw me more or less as a truth-teller. So she asked me point-blank if I knew anything about the theft. This is where it got a bit complicated. To make a long story short, because the mill was a sieve when it came to this sort of thing, I'd already heard a rumor that a woman I'll call "Linda" had stolen the coupons.

Although theft was universally reviled by the crews, and Linda was, for a multitude of reasons, generally regarded as a "low-class" person, it wasn't my job to act as union informer or security guard. Irony of ironies, over the years, several security guards had been fired for theft (but that's another story).

Given how quickly rumors got around, her next comment shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. "We heard it was Linda X who did it," she said. "I know you guys have this thing about [air quotes] 'snitching,' but I can't understand why you wouldn't want to get rid of someone like this." I told her if she knew who did it, then by all means, she should follow up. And that was that. I was a union man, not a company spy.

But without an eyewitness coming forward or physical evidence implicating her, there was no way in hell Linda was going to get nailed for this. Accordingly, the matter was dropped. As angry and frustrated as they were, all the company could do was move the Huggies from the general warehouse to a more secure location.

However, the theft raised some provocative questions. At the next executive board meeting a group of us discussed the ethical differences between "whistle-blowing" and "snitching." At that meeting we also learned that there had, indeed, been an eyewitness to the theft, and that it was he (a swing-shift forklift driver) who spawned the rumor.

My other reason for not ratting out Linda was simple compassion. I knew the woman personally. I knew her problems. She wasn't young; she was a grandmother whose daughter, the mother of Linda's grandchildren, was a mess, a reckless single mother and drug user. Her life was chaos. The last thing Grandma Linda needed at this point in her life was to lose her well-paying job over a handful of pilfered coupons.

Which brings us to policemen and police unions. This is where our E-board parted company with those hope-to-die adherents of union "solidarity." The majority of us (it wasn't unanimous) agreed that if we were cops, we'd "whistle-blow" every time we saw a fellow cop do anything unworthy of the profession -- stealing money, planting evidence, beating a suspect, etc.

Union "brotherhood" aside, we'd blow the whistle on every dirty cop we saw, no exceptions. We'd become well-oiled snitching machines. Why? Because when you carry a badge and a gun, and, literally, have the power of life and death, you need to be held to a higher standard than a pipe-fitter. A policeman's role transcends unionism.

Indeed, a union that knowingly protects sadistic cops is no better than one that knowingly protects child-molesting teachers. Cops aren't factory workers; they aren't accountants or clerks or book editors. There's a qualitative as well as a civil difference between policemen and other professions.

There's also a profound difference between a union "representing" a member who's been accused of something heinous, and a union knowingly lying to "protect" a guilty member. And every union rep in America recognizes the difference. If you want to sanctimoniously pretend that distinction shouldn't matter, then shame on you.

David Macaray is an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd Edition).